US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was scheduled to visit Providence today and tomorrow. His original plan was to visit for a breakfast celebrating the schools operated by United Providence, which I describe below. Someone must have tipped him off that we were planning a protest, because then he added a “town hall meeting” to address the question of safety in schools. In the end, Winter Storm Nemo and the subsequent closure of Providence schools on Monday appears to have scotched his plans–but not before we prepared to confront the Front Man of Corporate Reform. Below are the remarks I had prepared for our protest.
On one hand, I have to express my shock that Secretary Duncan would have the nerve to speak about “school safety” on a day when the Providence Public Schools did not think it safe to have school. On the other hand, the callous elite obliviousness Duncan has displayed today is in fact one of two main characteristics of his tenure as Secretary of Education. The other his is single-minded drive for privatization of public schools, no matter what the social cost, no matter who gets hurt by his schemes that parade as education “reform” but are in fact simply a way of transferring public funds and public property to individual interests in the private sector.
This is, after all, the man who claimed that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing” that ever happened to New Orleans. He retracted the comment later, but how could someone make such a comment about a disaster that killed over 1000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands, predominantly Black and poor? Simple: Hurricane Katrina allowed charter schools to tear apart what was left of the public system, to divide up the city’s student population among unaccountable and disconnected bureaucracies that could then profit off of their little chunk of formerly public sector capital. In this case, a natural disaster was the pretext for a smash-and-grab crony capitalist operation.
Here in Providence, our seemingly increasingly frequent natural disasters have not yet been enough for such a whole-sale privatization to occur. Without a natural crisis as an opening, Duncan has been forced to resort to artificial crises produced by the Federal Department of Education, in collusion with venture philanthropists such as Bill Gates and the Walton family, with charter school operators, textbook and test-writing companies, “data collection” outfits, and of course, state education departments and officials, such as our own Commissioner of Education Deb Gist. Using the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind, Duncan and his acolytes have gone a step beyond the Bush administration, putting funds behind the school “turn-around” measures mandated by that disastrous law.
Race to the Top, touted as an alternative to NCLB, was in fact a massive extension of it. When Rhode Island was granted RTTT funds to the tune of $75 million, Commissioner Gist made sure to emphasize that no school district would see any of this money going to alleviate the budgetary crises that almost all of Rhode Island’s districts face. Instead, certain schools in Providence were arbitrarily declared to be “failing” and essentially put into receivership using RTTT funds. This is where the UP model comes in: it is essentially a tripartite arrangement between the PPSD, the PTU, and the UP corporation for the sake of bamboozling the first two and channeling the funds to the third. In the process, the PPSD and PTU appear to have lost all control to a malevolent, dictatorial and ignorant bureaucracy run by a private corporation.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what Arne Duncan has come to Providence to celebrate.
Let me just end my remarks by pointing back to Chicago, where Secretary Duncan started his education career as CEO of Chicago Schools. On Duncan’s watch, something like 20 schools per year were closed and turned over to private charter school operators. Meanwhile, the schools left in the public domain were underfunded, the teachers’ rights curtailed, the curriculum brutally standardized and the students shoehorned into it. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, also a former Obama administration official and Duncan’s colleague, has presided over a city with a massively rising rate of violent crime. Emanuel has announced his plan to close 100 more Chicago schools in the next year. It’s stunning that Secretary Duncan cannot make the connection between the closing of schools and the murder of teenage children like Hadiya Pendleton, shot on the street after taking an exam on January 29. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, some school violence comes from those with guns, and other school violence from those with private sector friends and Federal Government funds.